The human rights campaign group has explained why it isn’t part of the new industry-backed plan to protect freedom of expression online. Human rights campaign group Amnesty International has criticised a new human rights organisation backed by technology giants Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
The attack comes after the formal launch of the Global Network Initiative, a scheme to bring the technology industry together with human rights campaigners to help protect free speech in repressive countries. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo – which have all been heavily criticised for their conduct in countries such as China in recent years – were among the first signatories. The group has been backed by several high-profile human rights organisations, but yesterday Amnesty said that it could not offer its support.
In a statement, Amnesty said it had been involved in earlier discussions over the group but had dropped out after receiving final drafts of its principles in August.
“Following careful consideration of these documents, Amnesty International has come to the conclusion that – while they represent a degree of progress in responding to human rights concerns – they are not yet strong enough to allow Amnesty International to endorse them,” the statement said.
It went on to attack what it said were “weaknesses” and said that “several critical issues could not be resolved” despite more than two years of talks.
Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and prominent freedom of speech campaigner in China who has backed the GNI, said that the people involved “would not be putting their reputations behind this thing if they did not think it was meaningful”.
“That said,” she said, “the initiative must prove its value in the next couple of years.”
The support from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo is a sign of a concerted effort to change the companies’ image after several years of intense criticism over their human rights records.
All three have been accused of cooperation with Beijing’s censorious regime – most notably Yahoo’s role in the imprisonment of journalist Shi Tao in 2004.
The companies joining the initiative have agreed to follow a loose set of principles, including a commitment to consider fighting unwarranted government demands in the court. However, it is unclear precisely what the guidelines will mean in the long term.
It is hoped that the high-profile backing will bring more technology companies into the group, and discussions are already said to be under way with British communications company Vodafone and France Telecom.
Amnesty’s criticisms will come as a major blow to the initiative’s plans, but it is not the only group to voice its concern.
“What’s disappointing is that the amount of effort didn’t produce something more substantial,” said Morton Sklar, the executive director of the World Organisation for Human Rights USA.